On the street, on the ball Streetball: South Baltimore youths play their version of baseball within earshot of Camden Yards. First base is a stoop, and third base is a mailbox.

September 27, 1996|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

As the oriole flies, their streetball field is less than a mile from Camden Yards, close enough to hear the crowd's roar after a home run. The kids like to play at Randall and Clarkson streets, a pocket of families and cheerfulness in a tough South Baltimore neighborhood.

And the streetball boys -- a motley group of about a dozen mostly 11- and 12-year-olds -- are getting a little nervous about their Baltimore Orioles.

"I think they will probably make the playoffs," says Tony Anderson, 12. "But I don't know about the pitching, and once they get to the playoffs."

"The pitchers are not good," says Charles Haslup, 11. "They need to trade for pitchers."

Youths have been playing ball at Randall and Clarkson for nearly as long as anyone can remember. Even though the neighborhood is tough and young drug dealers may dominate some street corners, the streetball boys own this one.

Any no-good boy trying to hang out on the stoop outside Schaefer's Bar and Restaurant would be run over immediately. That's first base. The mailbox on the opposite corner is third. The hitters stand on the corner in front of Randall Grocery, where Jung Kim, whose wife owns the place, keeps an eye on the games and the wear on the Formstone.

"My customers enjoy the games," Kim says. "There's no problem."

The batters don't actually swing a bat anymore. Three years ago, broken windows became so common along Randall Street -- even though the players used tennis balls -- that stickball had to be all but abandoned. If the boys want to swing a bat, they sneak down into the alley off Randall and hit among the rusting cars, short wire fences and barking dogs. A homer requires a fly ball high enough to clear a telephone pole, so in this neighborhood, every swing is a Brady Anderson uppercut.

But the boys prefer the corner to the alley, so they have adapted. Now, using a sponge ball, the "batters" throw the ball as hard as they can against the curb and run out the bounce. The strongest of the 11- and 12-year-olds who play here can bounce the ball all the way across the street.

"We call it 'streetball,' " says Tony. "We invented it."

Many of the "hits" bounce off the Tyson house at the

second-base corner, but the Tysons don't mind. Their window screens are testament to the hold of baseball -- and the Orioles -- in the neighborhood. On one screen, Millie Tyson has painted the home team's smiling mascot in front of two crossed bats. On another is a more ornithologically correct bird, standing in the middle of a baseball diamond. Tyson says she painted both three years ago.

"It was just something different," says Tyson, 49.

Some days, she and her husband sit on a bench outside and watch streetball. "As long as we don't cuss, they don't mind," says one of the boys.

"But we cuss a lot sometimes," says Bruce Schultz, 12.

In the past few weeks, the boys have been playing football on the corner, but all the talk is still about baseball and the Orioles. The boys may seem a bit more impatient than most fans, a little less deferential to the Orioles' glorious past. But it makes sense. The last time the home team made the playoffs -- the 1983 World Series year -- most of them hadn't been born.

"I think my parents were probably, you know, making me," says a giggling 12-year-old who didn't want his family to see his name in print.

The boys think pitching is the problem for the Orioles, and they all have ideas.

Tony, who says his mother lets him stay up until the last out, complains that Orioles manager Davey Johnson stays too long with his starting pitchers.

Randy MacKenzie, 12, who wears a sleeveless black jersey with "Ripken 8" on the back, says the team should try infielder Manny Alexander on the mound, since he doesn't play much.

Charles, a seventh-grader, says Orioles coaches need to "work the pitchers day and night" and give Mike Mussina every start. Either that or trade immediately for Red Sox ace Roger Clemens.

When a visitor points out that the trading deadline has long since passed, the boys are unimpressed. "They can get around that," says Charles.

On the corner, there is a surprising lack of respect for Cal Ripken, whose consecutive-games streak is also older than they are. Charles, nicknamed "Tooth" because a few of his are crooked, says Cal needs to sit out a game or two. Charles says his school schedule (he has never missed a day of school, his friends say) leaves him exhausted and that the Oriole shortstop's routine of seven games a week and heavy jet travel is even tougher.

"I know I'm very tired, so I think he needs a rest," Charles says.

The boys' favorite Oriole is second baseman Roberto Alomar, but even he does not command the same respect as Billy Deetz, 17, a playmate and supervisor. The sixth- and seventh-graders who play here are the younger brothers Billy never had. They admire his prodigious home runs, like the one he hit over rowhouses on the other side of Randall Street when they were playing in the alley.

"They want to be like me," Billy says.

Over in Schaefer's Bar, where Billy's dad is having a drink, the joke is that if the Orioles make the playoffs, they might add a couple of the streetball boys to the bullpen.

"Sometimes it looks like these kids would do better," says Doug Bayne, 22, a truck driver. "I mean that truthfully."

But the boys would rather watch the O's from home and play on the corner. They are close enough to the ballpark to feel like part of the action.

"You could sit right up on the tanks," says Randy, pointing to the towering old gas tanks that are being taken down by Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. "And you could see the game from there."

Have any of them ever climbed to the top of the tanks to spy on their heroes? The boys exchange looks and smiles. "No, mister," says Tony. "Never."

Pub Date: 9/27/96

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